Today in London radical history, Ambrose Barker, secularist & anarchist, dies, 1953

Ambrose Barker, 1859-1953

Ambrose George Barker was born and brought up in Earls Barton, Northamptonshire, near the town of Northampton. His father had been a Chartist and had helped set up a cooperative shop and bakery in the village. Barker remembered his father taking ‘a party of Radicals to Northampton to support Bradlaugh at the hustings in October 1868’. Charles Bradlaugh was the leading figure in the National Secular Society (NSS) and MP for Northampton, though he was repeatedly denied access to the House of Commons as being a non-believer, he refused to swear on the bible, and was imprisoned in Parliament for continually trying to take his seat without swearing…

Bradlaugh had been a great figure of inspiration for Barker in his youth. Another formative influence on Barker was James Watson, radical printer and publisher, fighter in the unstamped press agitation and leading member of the National Union of the Working Classes.

At the age of 19 Barker moved to Leyton in east London in 1878 to become an assistant schoolmaster and joined the NSS.

The National Secular Society concentrated on religion, but its members were renowned for their ‘advanced’ views on all the leading questions of the day, closely associated with every species of metropolitan Radicalism. NSS groups were involved in demonstrations in Hyde Park against royal grants in 1875 and against war during the Eastern crisis [1878-80: this was also the agitation that drew William Morris into the radical movement] In the late 1870s, the secularists formed the backbone of the Radical-Republican cause, especially attacking the monarchy, hereditary privilege and class oppression and in London secured wide general support among the working men’s clubs.

But the Secularist movement became increasingly split, between those who wanted to concentrate on religion and those who wanted to take a wider interest in other social issues, and were moving away from the Radical movement and its alliance with the Liberal Party, and towards socialism. Bradlaugh’s Radical politics were limited, and he attacked socialism. In some parts of the Secularist scene, questioning or disagreeing with Bradlaugh was tantamount to heresy (ironically!)

In 1880, Barker openly opposed Charles Bradlaugh’s support for the Coercion Bill, allowing for greater repression of the burgeoning republican movement in Ireland. He recalled: “One can well imagine our joy in the election of Charles Bradlaugh for Northampton and the great satisfaction generally that a great majority had overthrown the Tory government in 1880. But that satisfaction was soon to be shattered. Reaction had ruled so long that great things were expected of the Radical-Liberal Government. But the people were soon to be disillusioned. They were looking to the Government to bring forward social reforms, instead of which a most stringent Coercion Bill for Ireland was introduced.”

Ambrose Barker attacked Bradlaugh in print and proposed a motion condemning him but could find no seconder. This came on top of discussions within the Stratford Branch which had been going on for some time over the question of whether religion alone or the wider ‘social question’ should be their central concern. The majority favoured ‘this worldism’ and the more narrowly secularist members left, taking the name of the branch with them. The remaining ‘this worldists’ formed themselves towards the end of 1880 into the Stratford Dialectical and Radical Club. Barker became secretary to the club,

The 1880 split left Jesse Locks, local NSS president, an Owenite, (who had been nicked for speaking on secularism. And previously in the Stratford branch of the IWMA) and other internationalist socialists on the other side, in alliance with mostly liberals. There was still a certain respect for Bradlaugh, even in anarchist circles, for his stand against religion: witness the presence of the banner of the Brighton Anarchists at Bradlaugh’s funeral in 1891.

The new Stratford Dialectical and Radical Club openly adopted socialism, and Barker became their secretary. The Stratford Club was a pioneering influence in the emergence of a socialist movement from the diverse, fertile, but often politically contradictory, working men’s club and radical milieux in the 1880s. A development chronicled most analytically by Stan Shipley in his Club Life and Socialism in Mid-Victorian London.

In fact Barker wrote that the Dialectical Club’s founding “marks the inception of the Socialist movement in East London”. The Club met at the Telegraph pub, in Leyton Road. The driving forces were Barker, Tom Lemon (later of the Social Democratic Federation), & George Lofts. The club also held open air meetings at Mile End Waste.

“We now commenced our propaganda work in dead earnest” Barker wrote “For myself I lectured on ‘Labour’, ‘Social Democracy’, ‘The French Revolution’ and many other subjects.” One lecture he gave – on ‘Government’ – was, he claims, “the first lecture of the kind in East London or for the matter of that in London itself on the basis of anarchism. I said ‘Governments were popularly supposed to be for the protection of the people. A knowledge of the past and the bitter experience of the present seemed to point out that it was against rather than by Government that protection was necessary’.”

“The lecturer,” reported the Radical of February 19, 1881, “argued that people made a great mistake in looking to Government for help. It had always been the destroyer of independence.” Speakers and writers were invited to the club and included James and Charles Murray, Frank Kitz, Dan Chatterton, and Miss Le Compte, the American delegate to the International Congress. Later on, in April 1882, Kropotkin was also to speak at the Stratford Club on ‘Russian Exiles’: “It is generally thought that Kropotkin first came to England in 1885. But that is not so. He first came in 1882. he met a few comrades at the Patriotic Club [a very influential radical Club based in Clerkenwell Green]. I had a conversation with him and induced him to give a lecture at Stratford. He came with Tchaikovsky and we had a crowded meeting…”

Barker also belonged to the International Club in Rose Street, Soho, where comrades such as the brothers James and Charles Murray were able to pass on the message from Chartist days. The Murrays had been longtime comrades of the ‘Chartist schoolmaster’ James Bronterre O’Brien, who spread socialist ideas in the Chartist movement, and whose ‘Eclectic Club’ in Soho and National Reform League formed a link between Chartism and the late socialist groups, as well as being a core of the London section of the First International and lying at the heart of a network on London radical clubs. The Murrays went on to help found the Social Democratic Federation.

The first propaganda defining itself as anarchist that had any effect within the socialist movement came from America with Tucker’s paper Liberty. Joseph Lane seems to have been the first to procure copies of it and introduced Ambrose Barker to it, in late 1881. Barker became a regular subscriber and started a correspondence with Tucker. Tucker was a Proudhonist and committed to a society based on small proprietorship. However, Tucker had a keen sense of the right of the oppressed to struggle against oppression and gave space to anarchist communist views.

In 1881, Ambrose Barker helped Joe Lane found the Labour Emancipation League, a militant organisation which developed a widespread indoor and outdoor propaganda for revolutionary socialism in London.

In 1881 John Most was prosecuted at the Old Bailey for an article in the anarchist paper ‘Freiheit’ (published in London by German exiles from political persecution) on the execution of Alexander of Russia. A committee, of which Barker was chairman, formed for the defence and it issued a weekly paper in defiance, ‘The English Freiheit,’ which contained in the first number a translation of the article for which Most suffered 16 months imprisonment, and was sold outside the Old Bailey while the trial was proceeding. It ran to seven or eight numbers and then succumbed for want of funds.

In 1884 the Labour Emancipation League effectively merged with H. M. Hyndman’s organisation, the Social Democratic Federation. Comrade Barker was a friend of William Morris, and when that body seceded from the Social Democratic Federation in late 1884, Barker joined Morris and Joseph Lane, as well as Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling, in the new organisation.

The Socialist League had formed a branch in Stratford by 1886 (presumably Barker was involved), and held open air meetings in The Grove (Grove Street), Stratford. Like many local socialist groups, they had repeated troubles with police harassment, especially after the West End riots of February 1886. Open air meetings were regularly attacked by the police and speakers nicked. On 30 May 1886 ten people were arrested during a meeting at Grove Street, Stratford, for obstruction. On 5 June 1886, William Morris gave an open-air speech in support of the Stratford Branch of the SL at Grove Street. There was an audience of about three hundred. The police did not interfere this time. On 12 June 1886, however, Charles Mowbray and Joe Lane were arrested for speaking in Grove Street.

Barker appears to have left the Socialist League around the same time as Joseph Lane, at the end of the 1880s. By 1895 he was active in the Anarchist Communist Alliance, along with James Tochatti and L.S. Bevington. (read more on Tochatti in our radical history walk around Hammersmith.

Walthamstow anarchists were also said to have worked with local socialists in a ‘free speech fight’ in Epping Forest (possibly the arrests on Wanstead Flats in 1891-2).

In 1892, Barker became the secretary of Walthamstow Workingmen’s Club, a post he held until 1950. As secretary, Barker was involved in the 1892 Leyton Lammas riot, when the Walthamstow Working men’s Club was one of the organising centres for the tearing down the fences and uprooting the rails at the unpopular enclosure of parts of the Leyton marshes; a later account gives his name incorrectly as Aubrey Barker. Barker was secretary of the Walthamstow Workingmen’s Club until 1950 and wrote a history of it.

Barker was also later active in the Walthamstow Anarchist Group, which existed by 1907, and around 1910-11 was holding three or more weekly outdoor meetings. This group were enthusiastic debaters and visited local branches of the Social Democratic Party (formerly the SDF) and the Independent Labour Party. They were present at the inaugural meeting of the Socialist Society in nearby Leyton, formed from a SDP branch expelled for anti-parliamentary views.

Between 1910 and 1914 he was also associated with the Walthamstow Syndicalists, who met in the Walthamstow Workingmen’s Club, (founded 1892 and still exists). Another local syndicalist was Guy Bowman, who was involved with syndicalist pioneer Tom Mann in the Industrial Syndicalist Education League, & in publishing leaflets urging troops not to fire on strikers (as was done in the Welsh coalfields in 1911). Mann and Bowman were jailed for 6 months for this activity.

According to Albert Meltzer: “Many of the Walthamstow Syndicalists were in the Horse Transport Union, an anarcho-syndicalist union (not a breakaway from the T & G, but a forerunner) which decayed with the trade itself”.

Continuing in anarchist activism, in 1930, Barker was a founder member of the London Freedom Group. With other veterans like George Cores and John Turner, he had demanded that Tom Keell hand over the running of the by then nearly defunct anarchist paper, Freedom, to them. They were finally able to restart Freedom in 1930. However the British anarchist movement was in deep decline by then, and it was only able to appear until 1933, in difficult circumstances. These circumstances forced it to reduce its size in 1932. Around this time, Ambrose became active in the National Secular Society again, and his partner Ella Twynan, also an anarchist, wrote several pieces for them. She was involved in the anarchist and anti-militarist movements. During World War I she had been one of the international delegation which went to Sweden to discuss international socialist opposition to the war.

In 1938, Barker penned a pamphlet on Henry Hetherington, 1792-1849: founder of the Poor Man’s Guardian, and pioneer in the freethought and working class struggles for the freedom of the press. E.P. Thompson interviewed Barker for his book on William Morris in the 1940s.

Barker died on February 14th 1953. Ken Hawkes of the Syndicalist Workers Federation wrote, in their paper Direct Action, in March 1953:

It is with great sorrow that we record the death, on Saturday, February 14, of our grand old comrade, Ambrose Barker. He was 93, and died at his Walthamstow (London) home of bronchitis contracted during the fog last December…

His activity in the working class movement was never relaxed. A schoolmaster, he was an able indoor and outdoor speaker. In 1929, when “Freedom” (not connected with the present journal of that name) was restarted by the London Freedom Group, he became its editor.

On his 90th birthday, I and another comrade spent the evening with him and his companion, Ella Twynam, at Walthamstow. During the two hours that we were with him he brought to life the story of his part in the working-class struggles of more than 70 years. We asked him what he thought of the Labour Government. “£1,000-a-year men – all of them,” he answered, “they’re doing the Tories’ work well.”

During the latter years of his life, Comrade Barker’s main activity was in the peace movement, but he always remained an Anarchist and revolutionary. His body was cremated at Golders Green on February 20, following a secular service conducted by his old friend, Mr. Percy Turner.

After Barker died, Ella Twynam was involved with the NSS to a greater extent but came to the first meeting of the “Cuddon’s” Group, which later became seminal anarchist paper, “Black Flag”. It was she who suggested the name “Cuddon’s Cosmopolitan review” after the paper published in 1861 by Ambrose Cuddon, jun., who she claimed was the first self declared anarchist in Britain. A direct connection with the Chartist and Luddite movements, he welcomed Bakunin to London.

Lots of this post was garbled from writings by Nick Heath and Albert Meltzer.



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